There’s a history of booms and busts here,’ said Otis Brown, the resident storyteller at The Inn at Newport Ranch. ‘Fish, lumber, cannabis – and we’ll see about ecotourism.’ He was shouting bits of local lore as he navigated a Kawasaki mule around the inn’s 2,000 acres of private trails, passing stumps of redwood trees that were cut down 150 years ago, many with their inner layers eaten out by black bears. We whizzed by the house of the hotel’s closest neighbour, who Brown said was John Gray, author of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus self-help books.
In the mid-19th century, Newport, just outside present-day Fort Bragg on California’s Mendocino coast, was a tiny logging community. When the loggers left town after a few decades, dairy and fruit farmers took over. Once they cleared out too, about a century ago, the area became a haven for a certain kind of dissident thinker drawn to its remoteness. In 1941, a group of these later residents, scattered across several counties in northernmost California and southern Oregon, launched a failed bid to create a new state called Jefferson. That secessionist energy has remained at a low simmer ever since, drawing utopianists, pot growers and other practitioners of alternative lifestyles. Every few decades it rises to a gentle boil. In the 1980s, Will Jackson, a Manhattan-based banker, saw a listing in the Wall Street Journal for a 100-acre coastal northern California property that was priced the same as a single acre in the Hamptons. He bought it. A few years later, he purchased the adjacent lots, hoping to build a lodge with a back-to-the-land ethos. In 2015, he opened The Inn at Newport Ranch.
I had come to Jackson’s hotel with my friend Windy Chien on a road trip that took us from her home in San Francisco to the Oregon border. We were chasing the spirit of the Lost Coast, a 25-mile stretch of prime California that starts just north of the inn. No major roads access it, making this corner of the USA’s most populous state surprisingly unexplored. That has long been central to its appeal among committed adventurers, including rogue surfers looking for undiscovered waves and hardcore hikers who don’t mind timing their treks with low tide.
But in this moment, when the more physical space we have the better, that’s a selling point for us all. These empty landscapes aren’t just a bonus during our pandemic era, but also an antidote to the kind of travel where every stellar view or destination restaurant seems overcrowded and
overhyped. This is not Big Sur, which can feel like a Hollywood playground, or the coast of Marin or Sonoma County, where techies flock to keep it real, but a more gothic version of sunny, coastal California.
We eased our way towards the Pacific via the Anderson Valley, about two and a half hours north of San Francisco, along a winding 35-mile stretch of Highway 128. The isolationist element is alive and well in the local newspaper, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which has revolving mottoes: ‘America’s last newspaper’ and ‘Fanning the flames of discontent’. But now the valley is home to an up-and-coming wine scene. It feels like Napa must have done in the 1970s, or Sonoma in the 1990s: funky, unpolished, mom-and-pop. ‘Tasting rooms have doubled in the past 12 years,’ said Paula Viehmann after bringing us a flight of Pinot Noirs to sip at Goldeneye, a winery in the tiny town of Philo. We spent the night next door at The Madrones, where Jim Roberts and Brian Adkinson have built a Mediterranean-inspired estate with guest rooms (mine was their former living room); four tasting rooms; and a restaurant whose chefs, Alexa Newman and Rodney Workman, are alumni of Berkeley institution Chez Panisse.
The Bohemian Chemist, the on-site spa and cannabis apothecary, is unlike other dispensaries I’ve visited, which usually look like old-school bong shops at one end of the spectrum or Apple stores at the other. The owners purchased the fittings from an Art Deco pharmacy in Hungary. I bought a THC bath bomb that was so effective at chilling me out I spent five minutes after my soak looking for my glasses until I realised they were still on my face.
On our way out of town the next day, we stopped at the Bewildered Pig. The restaurant, run by Janelle Weaver and her partner Daniel Townsend, occupies a converted Craftsman-style home surrounded by cacti, with a Tesla charger in the car park. We crashed a gathering of the couple’s friends, neighbours and suppliers, and were invited to stay for what turned into a long and lazy six-course lunch with wine pairings. Everyone we met that day had chosen the Anderson Valley not for its convenience – you might have to drive 45 minutes to shop for food – but because they wanted to be there. I began to understand why as I ate one of the best meals of my life: shaved matsutake mushroom and yuzu persimmon salad, baby-artichoke soup, pork belly with lemongrass and turnips, pecan shortbread that was almost savoury. At golden hour we left the valley and drove through groves of redwoods towards the coast. As we approached, frothy sprays of waves crashed against a cluster of sea stacks. ‘Those rocks look like a Yeats poem,’ said Windy. ‘Slouching towards Mendocino.’
We had a peek at the Sotheby’s real estate office in the town, a small cliffside community with clapboard cottages that feel more Cape Cod than California, on our way to The Inn at Newport Ranch. Most of the properties for sale were well into the seven figures and inventory was low. When we got to the inn, I pretended it was my own city escape. It’s built in the coastal-ranch mould using a reclaimed redwood and is home to a restaurant run by Adam Stacy, formerly of the Thomas Keller group.
Our dinner of sturgeon caviar on sourdough rounds and abalone and locally foraged mushrooms was briny and earthy and captured this place where the sea meets the forest. There were windows everywhere to make the most of the views. To the east I saw golden hills, dotted with cows and strategically placed picnic tables, which gave way to deep and dense woods. On my tour of them with Brown, we passed not only redwoods but also rare California nutmeg trees, nettles and sorrel. To the west was the Pacific. Brown said migrating whales come up right to the cliffs – so close that his wife Sally, who also works at the inn, claims she has smelled whale breath. When a storm is coming, they send notices out to all the guests and employees, and everyone gathers in the lodge with a glass of whisky to see the waves crash over the cliff’s edge.
Windy woke up at dawn to take in the view. She said it was so beautiful and overwhelming she’d cried, and immediately booked a whole week so that she could bring her boyfriend. I thought I could see the ocean just fine from where I was, but I followed her advice and walked over to one of several benches; each seemed placed in exactly the right spot for viewing a specific rock or observing a wave break in a particularly dramatic fashion. I watched a slice of sun cut through the overcast sky, its rays shooting into the dark sea. I sat there, smelling the salty tang and listening to the rhythmic sound of the waves against the rocks. Soon enough I too was in an altered, exalted state.
As we pushed north into Humboldt County, there were suddenly a lot more Trump signs, even though the election had come and gone, alongside billboards advertising seasonal work harvesting cannabis. It’s a place of strange contrasts. We drove through Ferndale, a small town known for its perfect specimens of Victorian architecture.
That theme continued at the Inn at 2nd & C in downtown Eureka, where my room was painted a deep purple. I thought it looked psychedelic, but Windy said it reminded her of the bedroom of Jo March from Little Women. The redwoods, which are everywhere in Humboldt, long ago spawned a cottage industry. There are tourist shops every few miles selling wood carvings, and signs for drive-through trees for photo opportunities. We followed the Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of the old Highway 101. The trees grow so close to the sides of this narrow road and extend so high that it’s like passing through a wood-panelled tunnel. I have to admit, at the outset I was a bit blasé about the prospect of seeing the giant redwoods. I grew up with a redwood tree in my father’s front yard. The sequoia sempervirens are majestic and they have been around since before the time of Christ. But they weren’t, for me, novel.
Thankfully, Windy obsesses over all things nature. She had been telling me about Richard Preston’s book The Wild Trees, and the botanists who study the flora and fauna that only grow in the forest canopy. Another title she loved was The Overstory, Richard Powers’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about five different trees, including a centuries-old redwood. On our way out of Eureka to the alluvial flats of Redwood National Park and adjacent state nature reserves, which hold the highest concentration of these massive trees on earth, we listened to an audio version of a New York Times Magazine profile of the Canadian forest researcher Suzanne Simard, who was the basis for a character in The Overstory. I was ready to experience the trees anew.
In Orick, about an hour south of the Oregon border, we turned into a car park where an ominous hand-painted sign read, ‘Elk are wild animals. By entering you acknowledge all liability.’ We didn’t see any elk, but we did find Justin Legge, a lanky, fleece-clad naturalist who would be our guide on a trek through Redwood that included rapid-fire asides about the 19th-century naturalist John Muir and German explorer Alexander von Humboldt, known for his travels in the Americas (although he never visited California, the county, bay and nearby university were named after him). Legge told non-stop jokes with a loud, infectious laugh, pausing to smell laurel leaves. He and Windy immediately liked each other.
Redwood National Park and its surroundings aren’t like, say, Yosemite. There are no hotels or restaurants to attract travellers and barely any signs to hint at all it contains. ‘The trees here are 200 per cent larger in biomass than the ones along the Avenue of the Giants,’ Legge said. He pointed out where scenes were shot for the second Jurassic Park film, which I never knew had a redwood moment, and discussed research on the interconnectedness of trees in a forest. ‘I love how altruistic and community-minded they are,’ he said. We were really there to see Ilúvatar, which was named after JRR Tolkien’s Elvish word for ‘creator of the universe’. The largest tree in the park, it’s 320ft tall, weighs almost 450 tons and has a canopy that fills 30,000 cubic yards. What looks like one huge fused trunk from afar is actually made up of about 220 vertical trunks. Those are all impressive figures, but it’s only when experiencing it in person with no one else around that its real power comes through. It was like standing in front of a living skyscraper, so grand it’s scary.
I was torn on how closely guarded the location of the tree was. ‘It’s a secret on purpose,’ Legge said. In this era of everything being accessible all the time, I liked that if you wanted to see these giants, you had to know where to look, or at least how to look for them. I couldn’t remember another national park that felt so rugged. I guess Ilúvatar and the redwoods were like so many of the delights in this part of the state: hiding in plain sight. They’re here for anyone who is willing to put in a little effort.
THE BEST HOTELS IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
THE INN AT NEWPORT RANCH
This fortress-like lodge overlooking the Pacific is a place of wild extremes, from the 2,000 acres spanning seven microclimates to the rolling weatherfronts. Fortunately, there’s nothing extreme about the food, or ‘ranch cuisine’ as they call it. Locally sourced or grown on site,
it’s a natural phenomenon all of its own. Doubles from about £335. theinnatnewportranch.com
Tucked away in the tiny town of Philo, the Italianate bolthole looks like a Tuscan villa with its ivy-covered walls topped with terracotta roof tiles. Inside though it’s all California, with a herbal apothecary and spa that incorporates cannabis, grown nearby, into its treatments. Doubles from about £175. themadrones.com
the Inn at 2nd & C
Here is a family-owned guesthouse, overlooking Humboldt Bay in Old Town Eureka, that’s a trip back in time – in the best way. The building dates from the 1880s and its 23 rooms are dressed accordingly, with ornate antique furniture and oil paintings against papered walls. Doubles from
about £75. historiceaglehouse.com
THE BEST RESTAURANT IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
The Bewildered Pig
Owners Janelle Weaver and Daniel Townsend like to mix it up at their Philo restaurant, with a seasonally driven tasting menu that might include house-smoked black cod with crème fraîche and pickled garlic stalks, or velvety celery root and almond velouté. Tables on the breezy back deck are the ones to book. About £95 for two. bewilderedpig.com
THE BEST WINERY IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Far removed from buzzy Napa, this sprawling Anderson Valley estate produces only Pinot Noirs. It’s a delicious but notoriously tough-to-grow grape, which makes the smooth wine here all the more impressive. Book a tasting to sample both current-release Goldeneye wines and bottles from its sister winery Migration. goldeneyewinery.com
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